How to evict a troublemaking titan from your football club

For years, Jeff Kennett ruled Hawthorn Football Club like he’d once ruled Victoria. Then along came a challenger trained in the art of political storytelling.

11 May 2023
Written by
Andrew Mueller
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Reading time
9 min

Illustration: Michelle Pereira

We should not regard our political parties like we do our football clubs, but we do. The fealty to both tends to be largely instinctive, whether passed down through the family, or embraced in a revelatory moment in which we admired, in either politics or football, the cut of a particular player’s jib. In both cases, we tend to get evangelical about our mob’s virtues, defensive about its vices. Our tribe is principled, upstanding, passionate and decent. Their tribe is a feral rabble. All victories are deserved, all losses the result of connivance and conspiracy by malign forces (the media and the umpires are broadly analogous). As the sense of allegiance burrows deeper, we embrace the mythology: the colours, the songs, the characters, the history.

The similarity becomes even more obvious when one considers the politics of football clubs. Late last year, there was regime change at the currently languishing AFL club Hawthorn. Club president and former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett was standing down following his second stint in the role. As both a politician and a post-politician, Kennett was what tactful obituarists will describe as “divisive”. A pugnacious conservative, he was the dominant political figure in Victoria throughout the 1990s, before losing office in 1999 in a psephologist-baffling upset.

While others may have taken the opportunity of an unexpected defeat to reconsider their approach to governance and leadership, Kennett went on to apply the same buccaneering approach at Hawthorn, presiding over his football club much as he once had over the state, with rumbustious egocentricity and occasionally self-defeating belligerence. Whether he can be blamed or credited for Hawthorn’s on-field performance during his reign is a matter of debate, though his cantankerous public persona certainly made things difficult behind the scenes. Last November, Kennett acknowledged that his late-night tweets against Victoria’s current Labor government had cost Hawthorn $15 million in state funding for a new headquarters, plus possibly another $10 million from other wincing potential benefactors.

The day after that acknowledgement, Kennett announced his retirement as Hawthorn president. But when he endorsed a successor—commercial lawyer and long-serving Hawthorn board member Peter Nankivell—it became clear that he still had big plans for the club. Nankivell, widely perceived as the continuity Kennett candidate, would face off an insurgent campaign spearheaded by Andy Gowers, who played on the wing for Hawthorn’s 1991 premiership team, and who was director of football during Hawthorn’s most recent imperial period: that of the “three-peat” premiers of 2013-2015.

At the risk of giving away the ending, Gowers would eventually prevail, though success was never assured. His support team of communications experts and political operatives would employ methods unusual in football circles: tactics developed in the more progressive reaches of American politics, spiritually and physically a long way from the football club boardrooms of Australia.

Which is not to say Gowers would have stood no chance on his own. His credentials were unarguable: aside from an impressive football resume, he has forged a career in wealth management and succession planning. But he was running against a candidate backed by a political titan: Kennett had—for better and for worse—colossal name recognition; there are few Victorians who do not have an opinion of him. And Kennett was, and is, an inveterate scrapper, one of those people who seems to enjoy the fight at least as much as the win.

To stand a chance, the team behind Andy Gowers, who called themselves Hawks for Change, enlisted someone who knew a fair bit about beating Victorian Liberals: Stephen Donnelly, founder of the campaign consultancy Dunn Street, previously assistant secretary of Victorian Labor, founder of Labor’s Community Action Network, and director of Labor’s field programme in the victorious 2014 and 2018 campaigns of current Victorian premier Dan Andrews.

“Do you remember,” asks Donnelly, “the Batmobile?”

Nobody who saw it has forgotten it. In 1991, for reasons lost to history, the opening ceremony of that year’s grand final between Hawthorn and West Coast included champion marathon runner Robert De Castella and former Rose Tattoo vocalist Angry Anderson being driven around the ground in a heavily customised baby blue Chrysler Valiant convertible while Anderson groaned his solo hit ‘Bound For Glory’. In 2020, this inexplicable vehicle was listed on eBay. A friend of Donnelly’s, the cricket commentator—and Hawthorn barracker—Adam Collins was seized with desire to acquire the thing, and assembled an impromptu consortium of Hawks supporters to raise the funds (the winning bid was $25,300).

The day they took possession, the group got together for a couple of beers to celebrate. Naturally, conversation turned to Hawthorn. “[They] were asking each other what they felt about the direction of the club,” Donnelly explains. “There was a collective view that it was going in the wrong direction. And there was a unanimity about what the problems were, and one of them was Jeff Kennett—even though some of the folks in that conversation were on the centre-right side of politics.”

Though Kennett was going, there was clearly concern at the prospect of any further Kennettism.

“And they asked each other what they could do,” Donnelly says. “And someone said, ‘We’ve been good enough to buy this bloody car, why can’t we organise ourselves to create some sort of change in direction for the club?’ And my name got thrown in there.”

Donnelly is—and, at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, literally was—a student of Marshall Ganz, the former United Farm Workers union official and theoretician of community organising credited with devising the model which underpinned Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for the US presidency. Ganz’s book Why David Sometimes Wins has become something of a manual for grassroots organisers. Among Ganz’s big ideas is that of public narrative—“a form of public leadership which includes storytelling,” Donnelly says. In Ganz’s theory, a successful public narrative is made up of three elements: a Story of Self, which explains who the person doing the talking is; a Story of Us, which explains what connects the person talking and the person listening; and a Story of Now, which explains what the listener needs to do. To secure a change in leadership, Hawks for Change would need to utilise all three.

“What Marshall Ganz teaches,” Donnelly says, “is that leadership is about enabling others to achieve a shared purpose under conditions of uncertainty. And those conditions require individuals to respond through head, heart or hand. The head: what new strategies must I learn to overcome this challenge? The heart: where do I find the motivation or the courage to act? And the hand: to take the action, and to do something.”

Donnelly acknowledges that this sounds, to some sceptics, like “American mumbo-jumbo”, but stresses that the template is adaptable, even to electorates as sceptical as Australia’s. Ganz’s theory of the “story of self”—the necessity of explaining “why you have been called to what you have been called to”—is actually a pretty useful one in such circumstances. Any clown standing for office can say who they are; much more important is saying why they’re doing it.

A difficulty to which the Hawks for Change campaign had to adjust was that many traditional campaigning tactics—door-knocking, outdoor rallies—had at the time been rendered impossible by Melbourne’s Covid-19 lockdown. All engagement had to be done online; Donnelly recalls getting around 120 people to dial into the first Zoom rally.

“And Andy Gowers shared his public narrative,” Donnelly remembers. “I worked with him to craft it, but it’s his story. And the story he talked about was why he’d decided to sign with Hawthorn Football Club when his dad and mum were from Richmond families, and Richmond had approached him.” As Gowers explained over video call, Hawthorn coach Allan Jeans had approached him as well, and he racked his brains over the decision. This, Donnelly says, was the challenge he faced, his story of self. “So everyone understood why he cares, why he gives a shit, not just as a player but as a fan. The story of us… he talked about challenges the club had faced before, the obvious one being when the AFL had tried to merge Hawthorn and Melbourne.”

This was in 1996, when the fates not only dictated that the year’s last home-and-away game would be between Hawthorn and Melbourne, but that Hawthorn would win it by a point. Hawthorn’s Chris Langford, as he left the ground, removed his guernsey and brandished it like a battle flag. A couple of weeks later, Hawthorn members voted to reject the merger proposal.

Any clown standing for office can say who they are; much more important is saying why they’re doing it.

“The power of a public narrative is showing a story with moments like that,” Donnelly says. When it came time to tell their story of now, Gowers never mentioned Kennett. “Didn’t need to,” Donnelly says. Instead, he spoke about what would happen to the club if they didn’t act. “Andy started to create this anxiety, which is a good thing in organising. We want people to be anxious, because if you’re anxious, you move.

“And there has to be an ask: it’s no good bringing people on this journey and not asking them to do something.” For Hawks for Change, the ask was simple. According to Donnelly, Gowers said “‘In two weeks’ time, we’ll meet again on Zoom, and I want each of you to bring three more people to the next event. Raise your hands if you can do that.’ And everyone put their hands up.”

Growth was important. But as Donnelly notes, the key to Ganz’s idea of public narrative is getting the public to buy into the narrative. Donnelly recalls one Zoom rally at which everyone was invited to bring an item of Hawthorn memorabilia which held sentimental resonance for them. By general acclaim, the winner was an item purloined from a Hawthorn dressing room sometime during the 1980s: a training guernsey worn by Dermott Brereton, the preening superstar who embodied the swashbuckling swagger of Hawthorn’s dominant team of that period.

And then, finally, judgement day. On Tuesday December 13, over 10,000 Hawthorn members cast their votes. Andy Gowers would go on to receive 6,824 of them. PeterNankivell, Jeff Kennett’s would-be successor, nabbed just 3,568.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that organising techniques which have won wage claims and elections were so efficacious in winning a football club board contest. Donnelly describes the people that Hawks for Change enlisted in their victorious crusade as “one of the most motivated groups of people I’ve ever organised”: it is a remark that may prompt bleak reflections on why it is easier to rouse people to change a football club than to change structures and institutions which are (arguably) more important. But he stresses, like a good adherent to Marshall Ganz’s belief that leadership is at least as much about listening as speaking, that he learned from it, as well.

“Hell, yeah,” says Donnelly. “It reminded me of the importance of bringing heart into organising.”

Gowers knew that the grail he pursued, and eventually claimed, was a poisoned chalice. The current Hawthorn are not, despite the claim of their jaunty club song, a happy team. From their awesome mid-2010s pomp, Hawthorn have declined sharply, on field and off. Long-serving quadruple-premiership coach Alastair Clarkson left amid acrimony in 2021. In 2022, Hawthorn were at best mediocre. So far in 2023, they’ve been so horrible that Gowers has found himself angrily denying that the Hawks are tanking with an eye on this year’s draft. And Hawthorn faces further roiling from an enquiry into racism at the club.

But as any political operator knows, you can’t change anything if you don’t win the election (and $15 million in state funding for an upgrading of facilities was duly released to the new Hawthorn regime in April). And if Hawthorn need a story to tell their supporters, themselves, and the world, they now have available a narrative which is arguably the most compelling of all, so long as it’s not Jeff Kennett telling it: that of the underdog.

Correction: May 23, 2023

An earlier version of this article misidentified Angry Anderson as a marathon runner. Robert De Castella, who joined Angry Anderson in the Chrysler Valiant convertible at the 1991 Grand Final, is a marathon runner. Angry Anderson is a singer, actor and failed National Party politician, but not an athlete.

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